Friday, March 27, 2015

Solvang Double Century: Sharing the Miles

Maybe it’s because it’s Spring or maybe it’s because I’m headed into a new racing season but possibility—and the possibility of change—have been on my mind lately.  Greenery, new blossoms on trees, new things to plant in my garden and new challenges are waiting in the next few months as the days grow longer and warmer.

I had kind of a rough go of my first few attempts at Double Centuries and Ironman-distance events last year. I fared well in the Davis Double but really tanked in the Alta-Alpina 8-Pass Challenge (or, really tanked on summit 7 of 8) where I really went into some dark places. And then I was pretty depressed after a fire resulted in the cancellation of the Lake Tahoe Ironman where I was registered for the 70.3… and hoping for a strong performance, finally.

It wasn’t my time, apparently.

So I’ve spent the winter developing my fitness base and strength in the hope that I will have a more successful go at Double Centuries and Ironman Triathlons. I would be lying if I said I was 100% confident that I will do well in either of these—especially the Ironman since the time I spend with each discipline is much less than I would spend on any single one of them when I was "just a swimmer" or "just a runner".  

Yet, I’m in a better space than last year, too.  And, I am beginning to wonder if this year is the beginning of my time to do well in endurance events.
The scenery for the entire ride was (mostly) like this: green hills, oak trees and blue skies.
To say I had a really wonderful time in Solvang (and environs) on the Double Century would be putting it mildly.  It was, simply, beautiful there—so so so green (the hills are that vibrant green right now) and everything in bloom and baby animals galore.

We—Jami, Jeni, Dave, Rich and I—left Reno Friday morning and arrived in Solvang Friday night (it was about an 8-hour drive). We didn’t have time to explore much—just dinner and bed before the big ride. The highlight of the night was Rich’s deadpan delivery of the question every food server dreads these days: “Are those gluten free?” (After ordering two plates of pretzel rolls. The waiter’s smile literally melted and pooled on the floor. I’m glad Rich let him know he was joking because that’s where our food might have ended up before it was served up to us later.)
The town of Solvang itself is like this Pocket O'Dutch in the middle of California.

It was an early night for all of us since we wanted to start the ride at 6:30 the following morning. Jami and Jenni were close the start line—Rich, Dave and I had booked a room about four miles away. At dark o’clock the next morning, we woke to a cacophony of iphone alarms and left the hotel at 5:30 am the next morning which was difficult because the fog was so thick, it was like riding through a stagnant misty rain. Droplets formed on my helmet and dripped down my face as we rode in the dark-damp.

We waited for the rest of our group to show up before starting at the deserted start line. There was literally NO ONE THERE. No water or coffee or officials to say “Have a great ride!” We did find out that a Starbucks up in the lobby opened at 6am, so we had coffee and a bit of pumpkin bread Rich has stuffed in his jersey pocket before the ride to the start.  

When Jami and Jeni arrived, we were also joined by a guy who has raced with Rich in the long events (the 308 and 508) who lives in Santa Clara and whose racing totem is “Sanguine Octopus” [so for the purposes of this post, he will be henceforth named “Sanguine”. ] Right away he had trouble keeping up with us as we rode back toward Solvang in the fog—it turns out his brake pad was stuck on the rear wheel and could hardly do 17mph.

Once Sanguine figured out that he’d opted for extra resistance training, he stuck with us through the first segment of the ride. Or, actually, he and I slowly rode away from the others on the first climb of the day at about mile 20, up and out of the fog and onto a beautiful green hill with scattered scrub oak trees. We rode together for the next ten miles until Rich led the pack (the others who had finally warmed up) and pace line passed us like a freight train. Sanguine and I fell behind them and let Rich carry us at lightning speed us to the first aid station at mile 40. (Good thing, too- I was starting to get hungry.)  

There wasn’t much there—water, porta-potties and energy bars which I ate as quickly as I could waiting in the line for the restroom. I was suspicious of myself-- I was feeling pretty good—and typically I don’t feel good on these long efforts because of how many miles I know I have in front of me. But today, for whatever reason, I just felt full of energy and happy and ready to get back on the road. So, I filled my bottles and ate two bars and was off again.

This time Rich tried to pace line everyone to the next stop but we ended up breaking apart at the next little climb. Once again, it was Sanguine and I trading the lead, Dave back somewhere with another ride group and Rich rode with Jeni and Jami (who had the misfortune of having stomach issues that day.)  

Sanguine and I held a steady pace, passing other riders. One woman rode with us for a while who told us she is trying to do fifty of these 200 mile rides this year. Yikes! She was something of a nutcase (this coming from someone who is also a nutcase) but said she quit her job so that she could have time to devote her entire life to cycling. She was there with another group of male riders, though, who passed Sanguine and I two miles from the next stop. She nearly killed me cutting diagonally across our pace line to join the guys which rode past us.

Don't cut in front of other riders without warning, or you might get a reaction like this. 

[Side note: the next ride stop was at MILE 82. My bottles were empty and I had used up those energy bars about twenty miles ago. I have never been on a ride in which the stops were at least 40 miles apart.]

The terrain was mostly agricultural—vineyards at first, which gave way to strawberries, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, orange (or lemon?) trees. Sanguine and I made a game out of trying to guess what it was we were riding by on the side of the road. There wasn’t much at that next rest stop, either AT MILE 82.  More water, more energy bars. Pop tarts. Cookies. (This was one of the worst supported rides I have ever done.) but again, I filled up my water and felt pretty good.

Just as Sanguine and I were going to leave, Rich arrived with Jami and Jeni. They headed immediately for the shade and Rich grabbed food and water as I squirted water on his leg from my water bottle (I’m nice like that).

 I was anxious to go, but we all waited for a while to see if Dave would show up—but he didn’t. (It turned out the group he joined decided to forgo the next stop so he rode something more like 80 miles before stopping for provisions.)  

After everyone filled their bottles and had enough to eat, we all started out again. There was a slight climb before we entered some small town in the direction of Morro Bay. When Sanguine and I turned around after the first little climb, Rich, Jami and Jeni had already fallen behind us. 

We rode as a pack of two until we picked up another rider who who has done Double Centuries since 1979. He made me laugh, saying that these sorts of things aren’t the same now that people have GPS devices, electrolytes and energy drinks. To which Sanguine replied: “You haven’t named any of my favorite things about riding Double Centuries.” And to which I laughed to myself—aside from the Garmin (to track my progress, not plot it), I had only had water to drink and a few bars to eat so far that day. And yet, I was feeling fantastic.

We ended up dropping him, too, until it was Sanguine and I again, riding out toward the ocean at Morro Bay. The headwind was cool and strong, but it was really beautiful with the hills all green like that. We rode past an archery field and I worried about stray arrows finding my torso along that stretch of 101. Luckily, none did. But as we traded the lead, I realized how nice it was to ride with someone, since I probably would have ridden by myself otherwise.

We left the shoulder of the 101 (thank God) and rode onto a two-line road which carried us away from the ocean. It was undulating terrain, mostly, to the lunch stop at mile 108 or so.  My stomach screamed LUNCH and I was more than ready for something other than an energy bar.  When I saw they had subway sandwiches, I ate an entire one along with a cold Coke (oh sweet cold soda on a ride) and more water and an Oreo (I haven’t had one in forever). I’m so happy to eat that I’m giddy, nearly shaking.

Me at the lunch stop with that sweet, sweet soda. Feeling fantastic. 

In between bites, across the parking lot I spotted a blue jersey… which turned out to be DAVE! Sanguine and I waved him over.  And as Dave joined us,  Rich, Jami and Jeni rolled up and I was suddenly very tempted to eat another sandwich—but I didn't.

They roll over to the tables behind a fence (I’d been so ready to eat, I just sat down on the pavement next to the aid station.) Rich joined us, sandwich and coke in hand.   I filled my water bottles again and Rich told Sanguine, David and I to go on ahead—that he and Jeni and Jami would catch us later. So we departed for the second half of the ride, joined by the guy who’s been riding these things since 1979.

He was funny—as soon as we were rolling again, he said: “I haven’t pulled [ridden up front] since mile 70!” I was still feeling pretty strong, so I took the lead and pulled us out of town and back into a narrow canyon which would lead us back inland toward the fruit and vegetables and, eventually, vineyards.

So, I did what I always do when I am feeling pretty good on the bike and there’s no one in front of me: I zone out. I just kept peddling and lay low in my aerobars and soon we were in Prismo Beach and I turned around and everyone else was gone—aside from Sanguine. We traded the lead for a while as we went through the busy beach town and into some rolling terrain. At about mile 130, we were stopped at an intersection and Sanguine looked at me and said “Only 60 miles left, and you’re crushing it!”

I thought of how crazy it was that 60 miles sounded “short” to me at the time.

So up another climb past succulents with vibrant violet-colored flowers—and down another hill and we were back into the agricultural section again with a strong cross wind. I couldn’t hear anything but the wind, so I was short of shocked when I turned around and discovered that I was completely alone.

Alone on this ride wasn't a bad thing. No matter where we were, it was always beautiful. 

For a while now, I’ve been worrying about the Ironman I signed up for because, in part, it is so long. It’s been a while since I’ve swam 2.4 miles (in a pool or in open water) and although I ride 100-120 miles every Saturday, it’s one thing to do it inside on a trainer as practice than it is to do so in a race. And, most importantly, I haven’t run a marathon since 2010... I’ve been too injured since to attempt that distance in a race since I injured my Achilles, my Lisfranc joint and a plethora of other pieces and parts of my lower legs.  It’s only natural that a lot of doubt rests over my decision to do this race (a race I’ve wanted to do for some time) this summer. 

For a while, I tried to assuage my doubt by overwriting it with the belief other people had in me. Coaches, friends and family-- I tried replacing my feelings with their words. But you know, that only works for so long before the doubt comes back and I wonder why on earth anyone would think those things about me. That’s why, in part, I decided to train myself for this Ironman... no coach deserves the whiplash of my optimism-to-doubt. 

That is what is so magical and wonderful about mile 140. For the first time, the doubt fell away and there was only the miles in front of me and the miles behind. Open stretches of road where it’s up to me whether I keep going or stop, believe or not believe. 

And isn’t that transformative magic the reason why most of us do these long rides, these long races, these challenges we don’t think we are capable of doing? 

I suppose all these thoughts make me slightly crazy (I told you I am a nutcase) but it was so nice to pass my miles with all the people who have said these things to me at one point or another. I kept my cadence steady and passed a few riders, but no one kept up with me across the flats to the next town—and next stop which was at a part right next to a (smelly) cattle lot.

Once again, there wasn’t really much to eat—the same energy bars as the morning and water. In a few minutes, Sanguine showed up again and I was glad he was there. He said he wasn’t feeling well—too much energy drink—and so wanted to wait for a moment. I was tired of energy bars, but I knew that if my blood sugar dropped too low, so does my mood and my body follows quickly. So down the hatch went another energy bar and water.

The sun dipped behind the clouds and the wind picked up—I remember being extremely cold. But I waited while he gathered himself together, dumped the energy drink out of his bottle and filled it with plain water.

Then, Dave showed up, complaining of an aching wrist and shoulder and while I sent him off to re-hydrate as Jami, Jeni and Rich arrived.  Jami’s stomach was still not cooperating, so I rode with Rich to the nearest gas station to pick up soda and Gatorade (hard to imagine the ride didn’t even offer this at their FOURTH AID STATION ON A 200 MILE RIDE AT MILE 140 OR SO, BUT THEY DIDN’T) so off we went to Chevron for provisions which we brought back to the group.

It took us a while to regroup and get going again. By that time, I was freezing and so it was hard to get back on the bike. We did get rolling, though, riding through the little town and back out into fields and fields of various crops.

Once again, it was Sanguine and I on our own. After a long, gradual climb, we both had to stop and take off the layers we’d put on at the rest stop because we’d finally warmed back up again. After we stripped off our outer layer, we kept going forward.

The most difficult part of the ride happened right before the next rest stop at (about mile 170 or so.) I started to feel an ache in the front of my shoulders from being in the aero-position that long and I was just generally sore across my entire- um—female saddle . Luckily, though, I could sit up and stand up at little intervals to relieve the discomfort for the five miles before the final rest stop. …where they had hot ramen soup.

I DON’T THINK I’VE TASTED ANYTHING AS DELICIOUS AS THAT RAMEN SOUP. Or the red licorice they had afterward. I didn’t mind waiting so long for the others at this stop—the soup was so good and it just hit the spot! And so did the countless number of licorice vines I ate. Rich, when he got there, told me not to wait for them there, but to stay at the finish line so that we could ride back to the hotel together. So Sanguine and I set off again (for the last time) toward the finish line.

No one had much spunk in them. The riders I passed looked droopy and some were weaving all over the road. Before we got back on the main drag, we had to take a frontage road along the 101 which was practically a dirt road. It was a bit precarious because there were these huge potholes around a blind corner—I’m sure someone crashed because of them at one point because they weren’t marked!

When we got back to the vineyards, though, I kept trying to find my pace, but I couldn't. My legs just felt “slow”. Sanguine—who does this ride every year—told me that there were two climbs left—one 400 foot climb and a 1,000 foot climb. I wondered how I was going to make it up them since I was already moving so slow! So I kept pushing and tried to get my legs to move and pretty soon, it became quiet and peaceful out—there were crickets chirping and the low light of sunset (it was almost golden) was just so beautiful. So, once again, I turned around and I couldn’t see Sanguine (who was only 100 feet or so behind me.) So I just set a steady pace and told myself I could do it, just so long as I didn't make any wrong turns.

The first hill wasn’t too bad—it was a great reason to stand up and get out of the saddle and stretch my legs, and so I did. There was a little valley in between that and the next hill where I passed a rider who was weaving wildly from one side of the road to the other and who tried to ride behind me at my pace, but who immediately fell back .  I noticed him in my shadow and around another corner, he was gone.

Sanguine and I rode the final miles at dusk together. The sound of crickets chirped in the distance. The sounds, smells and overall "feel" of the moment brought on this incredible feeling of calm... and happiness.

Then up a 1,000 foot climb and I thought about all the challenges one has in life and how most of them aren’t glamorous and wouldn’t lend themselves to good literature, but they are important to who we are how we understand the world. As I climbed, I tried to push the discomfort out of my legs, focusing instead on maintaining a steady pedal stroke and breathing pattern. 

Once I was at the top, I settled low in the aerobars and glided down a winding road for miles as the sunset turned from golden to pink to purple. Sanguine caught up with me on that downhill and we rode into the finish line together at the very end of twilight. Our ride time was a bit over 10 hours—including stops it was something more like 13 hours—but riding, we averaged 19 mph. Not bad!
I ended up waiting for the others what seemed like a while (or enough for the sun to set and for me to feel wet and cold) at the finish line. Sanguine was really nice and waited with me. . In the end,  I didn’t see my friends cross the line because I really, really had to use the restroom and I was cold and so the moment I went inside was when they arrived.  (Leave it to me to have the worst timing in the world.)

But they didn’t seem to mind. Dave, Rich and I rode our bonus miles back to the hotel, cleaned up (I almost fell asleep—a combination of low blood sugar, fatigue, a warm shower and an empty bed are hard to resist after a Double Century) but I’m glad Rich talked me into joining them all for dinner where we harassed the same waiter about the gluten-free pretzels and traded our war-stories from our 200 mile journeys around Solvang.  Even though Ironman is a solo event (one in which I have to learn to depend and believe in myself) it is nice to have ride-mates with which to share the miles getting there.

Downtown Solvang at dusk. 

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